Remembering Malcolm

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EMAHUNN CAMPBELL

The wait will soon be over. In April, Viking Adult will finally publish Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by the prominent Columbia University historian Manning Marable, widely expected to be the definitive biography of that complex figure. I recall speaking with Marable about this book during the 2007 Young Democratic Socialists conference in New York. According to Marable, Malcolm was always questioning and reconsidering his position as it related to black people and the larger society. Or as Amiri Baraka puts it in his 1995 essay “Malcolm as Ideology,” “Because Malcolm was shaped by a continuous ideological development, if we take the whole of that development into consideration[...]we [will] get a deeper biographical portrait of Malcolm, one that is not static and ‘ideal’ but  in motion.” Malcolm may have arguably been the most self-critical prominent political thinker of the late 1950s to the mid-1960s.

I hope that Marable’s book will uncover and develop Malcolm’s relationship to socialists and socialism. Although one cannot refer to Malcolm as a socialist–he did not have a chance to fully develop or move towards a socialist position–he did have strong opinions about the depredations of capitalism, especially after his split with the Nation of Islam (NOI). To be sure, he went from being a proponent of black capitalism, which was an ideological residue from his time as the national spokesman for the NOI, to becoming anti-capitalist due to his engagement with socialist and Marxist literature as well as his travels to Cuba and a number of decolonizing nations in Africa and the Middle East that claimed to be developing their respective national paths to socialism.

Indeed, Malcolm had a penchant for reading The Militant, the newspaper of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, but this was probably unavoidable considering that Malcolm’s two organizations – Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity – were located in New York, long a hothouse of various socialist sects. According to James Smethurst in “Poetry and Sympathy: New York, the Left, and the Rise of Black Arts,” “the CPUSA newspaper The Worker, and the The Militant were more concentrated in New York than anywhere else,” and nowhere else “was there such a density of past and present Communists, Trotskyists, and Socialists, black and white.” Although Malcolm denied charges of hanging around with Marxists and socialists on a number of occasions, Malcolm’s FBI files seem to indicate otherwise: “Malcolm X was a revolutionary and became increasingly more anticapitalist and more prosocialist. He read the Socialist Worker Party publication, The Militant, and urged other Negroes to do likewise. Lastly, during his two visits to Africa in 1964, Malcolm was known to refer to capitalism as a ‘bloodsucker.’” William Sales’ book From Civil Rights to Black Liberation: Malcolm X and the Organization of Afro-American Unity offers this quote from late in his life:

It is impossible for capitalism to survive, primarily because the system of capitalism needs some blood to suck. Capitalism used to be like an eagle, but now it’s more like a vulture. As the nations of the world free themselves, then capitalism has less victims, less to suck, and it becomes weaker and weaker. It is only a matter of time in my opinion before it will collapse completely.

This echoes Marx’s evocative imagery from Capital, where he describes capital as “dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” One cannot be sure if Malcolm read any of Marx’s texts directly. But one can be certain that late in life Malcolm’s thought leaned increasingly toward a somewhat vague but undeniably anti-capitalist stance.

I am sure that Marable’s book will reveal many important facts about this assassinated black hero. It is my hope, however, the biography will elaborate on Malcolm’s dealings with radicals and socialists of all stripes. While no socialist organization can claim Malcolm, one can definitely imagine how profoundly developed his thought would have been if he was around long enough for it to manifest itself in his organizational pursuits.

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3 Comments

  1. I recall the assassination of Malcolm X, broadcast on local New York City television evening news. It was shocking and the memory of that terrible, bloody scene has never left me. I was a young teenager at the time.

    There are many remarkable revelations in Manning Marable’s “A Life of Reinvention Malcolm X.” EMAHUNN CAMPBELL writes a good article, I must say, however, it wasn’t the Trotskyists relationship with Malcolm X that really impressed me. The Militant Labor Forum is a well known SWP forum series at which Malcolm X spoke on a number of occasions. I recall that the SWP’s press outlet, Pathfinder Press, printing interviews and essays by Malcolm X, on black nationalism. Clifton DeBerry and George Breitman had an editorial and political relationship with Malcolm X. I recall the SWP’s book tables, cluttering the sidewalk, in front of the old A+S Department store, on Fulton Street in Brooklyn, each Saturday morning. The SWP made a serious effort to recruit American Blacks, through support of black nationalism and an alliance that was in existence between the SWP leaders, DeBarry ,Breitman and Malcolm X..

    What is certainly remarkable, in Marable’s biography, is the relationship Malcolm X had with our own comrades, all democratic Socialists. Malcolm often debated Bayard Rustin on the topic “Integration or Separatism,” on local talk radio, at universities, NYC’s Community Church, and in the open air on hot, tense 125th Street.

    When A. Philip Randolph organized a Harlem coalition, the “Emergency Committee,” to address immediate community needs, Mr. Randolph reached out and included Malcolm X on the organizing committee, much to the displeasure of Elijah Muhammad. Manning Marable writes, ” …he had seen the fight shift in recent years from demanding more black jobs at businesses on 125th Street to seeking full representation for blacks within the political system. Such an effort required a united front from Harlem’s black community, and Randolph knew that Malcolm represented an increasingly significant constituency. But his admiration for Malcolm likely had an ideological component. Almost fifty years before, Randolph had introduced newcomer Marcus Garvey to a Harlem audience, and though he never endorsed black nationalism, he maintained throughout his career a sense of admiration for its fundamental embrace of black pride and self-respect.” Marable further notes, ” Bayard Rustin, who by that time had worked with Randolph for over twenty years, was also on the committee, and his presence may have furthered intrigued Malcolm about the group’s potential.”

    CORE’s James Farmer also debated Malcolm X and the two men developed a personal bond of friendship. These leaders, each a democratic socialist and exponent of non-violence, reached out to Malcolm X, in a serious political fashion.

    No church wanted to receive Malcolm X’s body, after the assassination, for fear of retribution by the NOI. Finally, after a week of calling Harlem churches, the Faith Temple Church of God in Christ was willing to arrange the funeral and made its auditorium available. A thousand people came to pay respects to Malcolm X and his family. The national civil rights leaders, and Harlem civic leaders, including Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, stayed away from the funeral. It was a small group of democratic socialists, including Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, James Furman, and John Louis, that were present at the funeral. Dick Gregory, not a socialist, was present. King, Whitney Young and Kwame Nkrumah sent condolences. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee presided over the program. Marable doesn’t mention Clifton DeBarry or George Breitman attending the funeral.

    The Trotskyists receive their due in Marable’s book, but I feel from the evidence presented in Marable’s biography, the democratic socialists, centered around Mr. Randolph and the Negro-American Labor Council, deserve more credit and appreciation than they have received, heretofore, on the Left.
    The Trotskyists had influence with Malcolm X. At a more substantive level, however, it was A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, James Furman and John Lewis which were the leaders responsible for reaching out to Malcolm X, working to include the politically evolving Malcolm X in the broad civil rights movement’s conception of “coalition politics.”

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